"If I don't have breasts or a uterus anymore, am I still a woman?"
That's the question a character in Erin Brockovich asks as she recovers from a double mastectomy and hysterectomy. The answer, delivered by Julia Roberts with her characteristic crooked grin, is: "Of course, you'll always be a woman. You just won't have to buy any more underwire or maxi-pads."
This message—of course you're still a woman, even if you're missing some of the organ and tissue you were born with—is the most important part of Angelina Jolie's op-ed in today's New York Times. She writes about her own preventative double mastectomy, a three-month procedure she underwent because she has a so-called "faulty gene," BRCA1. People with a defect in this gene have a 65 percent risk of getting breast cancer. Jolie's mother died of cancer.
Jolie first tells her readers that her status as a mother hasn't changed since the procedure. She writes that her six children "see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that's it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was." Motherhood is an important aspect of a woman's femininity, and it's good that Jolie reassures her audience that she's still fully a mother, even after her body has changed.
But she goes on to expand her point to apply to all women, even women who don't have children: "On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."
This is a big deal. Angelina Jolie is sexy. Her body parts—her legs, her breasts, her hair, even her blood—have been on display throughout her career, subject to discussion and speculation. That she can lose the part of her body most closely associated with female sexuality and still feel fully female is an astonishing statement. Yes, she's a celebrity and can afford the finest reconstructive surgery in the world, a level of care that's out of the reach of most people (a fact she acknowledges). Nevertheless, the message is clear: A woman is still sexy, even after she has her breasts removed and reconstructed. It's hard to imagine a person who can say that with more authority than Jolie.
(It's also worth noting that Jolie does not shy away from the grisly aspects of her surgeries. She describes the painful "nipple delay" procedure, which left her bruised, and the eight-hour reconstructive surgery that feels "like a scene out of a science-fiction film." Many people have criticized the "pink-washing" of breast cancer, and how advocacy groups minimize the disease by associating it with pink ribbons and "save the ta tas" tee-shirts. Jolie steers away from that kind of language, which is good.)
Later in the piece, she makes an important point about masculinity as well. She thanks equally famous significant other by name for supporting her through he procedure:
I am fortunate to have a partner, Brad Pitt, who is so loving and supportive. So to anyone who has a wife or girlfriend going through this, know that you are a very important part of the transition. Brad was at the Pink Lotus Breast Center, where I was treated, for every minute of the surgeries. We managed to find moments to laugh together.
This also is a big deal. Brad Pitt is sexy, as much an icon of modern masculinity as Jolie is of femininity. And Jolie emphasizes that he supported her and cared for her in a season of pain and vulnerability. Sexy men support the women in their lives through anything, even the loss of their natural breasts.